How do the French words spoken at the beginning of Visage’s Fade to Grey make you feel? Amused? Disturbed? Intrigued? Does it matter that the speaker, Brigitte Arens, is from Belgium? By the way, if the video below doesn’t work where you are in the world, try this one:
A touch of French in an English song introduces a soupçon of intrigue and mystery. Something like this. No other European language has quite the same effect on native speakers of English.
Most of the audience won’t have understood the meaning of devenir gris at the beginning of Fade to Grey. But they will have registered Frenchness: a swirling mix of exotic otherness and philosophers in black polo necks sipping absinthe and smoking Gitanes. A vibrant world, conjured by two French words, spoken in an authentic accent.
If English isn’t your native language: when you sing the chorus of Fade to Grey, pronounce to with a proper schwa sound. The contrast of classic English and exotic French only works if the lines between the two are clearly drawn. Like this.
The unexpected French beginning primes the listener perfectly for unpredictability in the song itself. It also primes the audience to wrap the first image, of One man on a lonely platform, One case sitting by his side, in a swathe of existential angst. It stops the audience wasting time searching for clues to the man’s identity in the lyrics. It’s clear from the very first line. He is Camus’ Stranger or Iggy Pop’s Passenger. A grey character, full of meaning but empty of personality.
If the song had started with the English fade to grey, it would have sounded like a train announcement, in the spirit of Mind the Gap.
You notice that Julia Fodor, who appears in the video, only mimes the first two French lines of the song. She’s not French and it would have been difficult for her to mime the more complex lines authentically, keeping her lips in the right shape and not looking as if she’s forming the words in the centre of her mouth, as a Londoner would. The audience would have noticed a disjoint between the French sounds and the shape of her mouth. That would have been a distraction in such a carefully controlled video.
Speaking of careful control, David Bowie was so impressed with Steve Strange’s attention to visual detail that he asked him to style and appear in his Ashes to Ashes video. You can see that they shared the same taste in lipstick:
R.I.P. Steve Strange
© Sing Better English, 2015